So you thought ‘German humour’ was an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’, ‘fun run’ and ‘sporting shooter’? If you visited Aachen at Karneval time, you’d think again. The Germans of the Rhineland take their fun very seriously indeed.
Forty days before Easter, normally dour hard-working Teutonic types let their hair down, after first putting on an outrageous wig. Bank managers dress as bunny rabbits, police officers turn into pirates and demure housewives paint their faces with dripping blood and adjust their devil’s horns. The kids all love it of course.
Cologne is reputedly the centre of German Karneval festivities, and as my train approaches that town the atmosphere gets progressively crazier. By 8am my fellow train passengers are well into the champers. These are not young hoons; they’re middle-aged people who look as if they don’t do this sort of thing very often. Let’s hope not. Three women are dressed as convicts in striped jackets and caps, and a gentleman is a clown wearing a Cat in the Hat stovepipe.
Cologne Station is jam-packed with Napoleons, cowboys and skeletons. Indiana Jones links arms with a ladybug. A family of black and yellow bees buzzes past towards the mighty gothic cathedral. It’s going to be quite some party.
But I’ve arranged to meet friends in Aachen, over by the Dutch border, so I hop on the connecting train. Aachen has Karneval too, they’ve assured me, and Sunday is Children’s Day. Opposite me in my train compartment, two junior witches are doing sudokus.
The children’s parade is already in full swing when we reach Aachen’s lovely market square under the old town hall. Every school has decked out its students as Red Riding Hoods or garden gnomes. Parents must have worked long and hard to sew those Pied Piper and Smurf costumes.
The mums and dads are dressed for the occasion too. There’s an elephant drinking beer over his rubber trunk, a team of Minnie Mouses, and nuns in fishnet stockings – always good for a laugh. My friends have brought a jester’s hat for me, so I can blend into the throng.
As each float passes, the crowd shouts, ‘Oche alaaf!’ It means ‘Hooray for Aachen’ in the local dialect, but in this context it means ‘Throw some lollies over here.’ Passengers on the floats scoop up armfuls of chocolate bars, bonbons and lollipops to rain down on kids scrambling below, filling sacks and upturned umbrellas and stuffing their faces. I step back to line up a photo and get smacked on the head by a flying waffle.
This event is different from Rio’s famous Carnival; there is less flesh on view for a start, because it’s a cold, drizzly February day and frankly, the Germans don’t go in for that sort of thing. They have brass bands instead.
For a smallish town (250,000 people), Aachen has an awful lot of musicians. It seems that out of every ten Aacheners, three play the trumpet, two play the flute, one plays the trombone and the other four bang drums. They’re all on show today, blaring out Karneval songs; Oompah, oompah, Roll Out the Barrel sort of stuff.
The parade will take hours to pass, so we take a break from catching candy and stroll around the town in search of refreshments. Aachen has plenty going for it any time of year. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed in the heavy fighting as it became the first German town captured by the Americans in WWII, but as in so many German cities the rebuilding effort has been remarkable. Mediaeval streets look mediaeval again.
The old centre is dominated by the mighty dom, the cathedral founded in the 8th century by the Emperor Charlemagne, who visited for the thermal baths (the hottest in Europe, Aacheners claim). Charlemagne’s winter court was based here, and his mortal remains now reside in Aachen permanently, buried under the cathedral floor.
My local guides Knut and Ludgera show me how to feel around inside the brass door handle of the dom. The devil’s thumb is in there. The legend goes that the virtuous folk of Aachen once slammed the door on the devil, severing his thumb and making him understandably angry.
Finding sustenance other than trampled chocolate and bent waffles is no problem, since there are numerous cheap cafes catering to Aachen’s large student population. Its famous technology university draws students from all over the country, so the place has a rich cultural and social life.
Each year Aachen presents the serious Charlemagne Award to someone who has made a major contribution to European unity (German chancellor Angela Merkel is the current holder), but the Karneval committee also makes another important award – the Medal for Combatting Deadly Seriousness. Since 1950, it’s been presented to the public official adjudged to have brought the most humour and humanity to the job. There should be more of it.
The parade is coming to an end. The final float is a castle, bearing the Karneval Prince, along with his traditional attendants, the Farmer and the Virgin. The Virgin is always a man in drag, except for the few years following 1938, when the Nazis decreed that such behaviour did not befit the Master Race. She’s back in a frock in Aachen now, and most hilarious she is too.
It’s over for the day, but wait, there’s more! Tomorrow is Rosenmontag, Rose Monday, when there’s another parade, the main one of the festival, even bigger, better, longer and more professional than today’s affair. Then there’s Violet Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, before finally we bid ‘carne vale’ (farewell to meat) and get on with the serious business of Lent.
It’s been a great party. ‘Oche alaaf!’
Getting there: The fast ICE train from Frankfurt to Aachen via Cologne takes about two and a half hours and costs EUR77.00 ($155). Cheaper, slower options are available. See website bahn.de.
Staying there and further information: aachen.de offers an accommodation booking service and also has advice on tours, events and attractions in the town.